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How biodynamic farming can satisfy consumer demand for greater food transparency

Interest in biodynamic farming has grown as consumers show increasing concern about the origins of their food, and some now even question whether the National Organic Program is stringent enough.

Developed in the 1920s, biodynamic farming is a diligent, ecological system of farming that centers on creating a diversified, balanced and mostly self-sustaining ecosystem within an individual farm. Robert Karp, executive director of the nonprofit Biodynamic Association, explains biodynamic farming and its certification and shares how this may be the wave of the future.

How does biodynamic farming and certification differ from organic?

Robert Karp: With organic, you can carve off part of a farm and just certify the soybeans, for instance. But with biodynamic, an entire farm must be certified [by independent certifying body Demeter USA] because it’s a closed-loop ecosystem. There needs to be some integration of animals and plants, and everything must work together. Biodynamic farmers try to get as much fertility out of the soil as possible from manure and, if they’re able, grow feed for the animals on the same farm. Composting is an essential aspect of any biodynamic farm, and something that is not absolutely necessary in organic farming. Farmers also must use biodynamic preparations, which are special amendments to the soil and compost that enhance the vitality of the farm as a whole.

What exactly does the Biodynamic Association do?

RK: We are the umbrella research and education arm of the movement. We’re the oldest sustainable agriculture organization in the U.S., founded in 1938. We have a beginning farmer training program with about 40 mentor farms. We put on webinars and workshops. We’re launching a new research program right now to that aims to give us a better understanding of what contributes to food quality—and what food quality really means.

How many biodynamic farms are there in the U.S.?

RK: It’s hard to give exact numbers, but there are approximately 200 certified farms and probably a couple hundred more that haven’t been certified. Quite a few CSAs practice biodynamic farming. In fact, the whole CSA movement was started by biodynamic farms. Alternative economic structures are also a big part of this system, so many farms try to create innovative partnerships directly with consumers.

If that’s the case, is there a role for retailers here?

RK: There’s a huge role for retailers, quite honestly. For years, consumers who were interested in biodynamic goods couldn’t find anything but wine, so there’s a real interest in seeing other biodynamic products on store shelves. Not every farmer is cut out to be a direct marketer, so retail involvement is great. Whole Foods Market has made a big commitment to biodynamic in recent years and is now encouraging its suppliers to develop biodynamic product lines. Independent retailers such as Terry Brett at Kimberton Whole Foods are also big fans. Meanwhile, food and beverage companies including Crofters, Yellow Barn pasta sauce, Republic of Tea and Lundberg have all explored biodynamic products.

Are more consumers also getting behind biodynamic?

RK: Definitely. Visits to our website have gone way up, as there is so much interest in our work. We are clearly in a growth phase. I think Whole Foods certainly contributed to this; the CSA movement has done a lot for it too. Also, interest in biodynamic wine is way up because it has a reputation worldwide for being the best you can get. A lot of people have gotten disillusioned about organic food and wonder whether it’s really authentic and comes from a healthy farm. This movement is anchored in the core values that led people to be interested in organic in the first place.

Do you see biodynamic as the next wave of food change after organic?

RK:  I think biodynamic will follow the same trajectory as organic, but much faster. We are happy that biodynamic has an independent certifying body that’s not tied to the U.S. government. I think it’s especially great that more retailers are getting involved. 

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